Friday, February 25, 2011

Squeezing the Middle Class

(News-Herald, February 24) Miles of words have described how the middle class is economically strapped, squeezed between the filthy rich and the ever-poorer wards of the state. But the middle class is increasingly squeezed in another, more subtle vise.
Many Americans choose a middle class life with a middle class profession because it offers a chance to make a difference. Become a teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, the dream goes, and you can use your education and training and smarts and character and professional judgment to make a difference for the people around you. But over the past few decades that dream has been grabbed by the neck and slowly strangled.
A professional life was many peoples’ answer to the question, “how can I make a difference?” At the end of their working life, they could look back and think, “It mattered that I was there, that I was the person filling that job. Somebody else could have done it, but not exactly as I did.”
We’ve celebrated doctors and nurses as heroes in countless movies and tv shows and the ways in which their character, personality and skills left a mark on the people they met. Dr. Manly would flex his stethoscope heroically and bark, “No, no, no—it’s not lupus! Get me an IV drip with Ringer’s lactate and call the ER stat—cancel my dinner date, because I’m gonna crack this guy’s chest. We’ll stay here all night if we have to—nobody dies on my watch!!”
Today, heroic medical personnel are instead required to bark things like, “We’ve got a call in to the insurance company—they’ll get back to us with how much treatment they’ll allow” or “We’ll get you the very best treatment that law permits.”
Teaching is another field where middle-class professionals are hemmed in. The state and federal governments are increasingly interested in telling teachers what they should teach, and how and when they should teach it. And of course the state will to give the final exam.
Those are, of course, only two areas where the feds (with enthusiasm unchecked by either party) are stepping in to regulate us into a better world. With every new bit of oversight, a bunch of middle-class folks lose the right to exercise their professional judgment.
The desire to make a difference has always driven some upward career mobility. Some people pursue that promotion because it means bigger bucks, but many believe that if they could rise a step higher, they could solve some of the problems that they see—a move up on the ladder would let them make more of a difference. But these days only ladders that lead to the highest levels of bureaucracy give that kind of view.
Middle class folks used to choose professional careers so that they could make a difference, but the push from the Powers That Be has been in exactly the opposite direction. The new ideal is that the results should always be the same; the matter of which particular person is doing the job should make no difference at all.
This is a hard issue to raise without seeming whiny. As with money, some people don’t want to hear a doctor complain about having less of what those people have never had at all. If you’re a chef who thought he’d be making gourmet steaks, and you discover you’ll only ever get to make fast food burgers, saying “This is not what I signed up for” isn’t very compelling to people who just want something to eat. Particularly in an era in which college-educated folks are called “our elitist overlords.”
The fear of a personal touch is not unfounded—nobody wants his kid to get the Bad Teacher or the Bad Doctor. But a bureaucratic straightjacket that keeps everyone on exactly the same page does not breed excellence. Make everyone cook and eat the same, and you don’t get universal filet mignon—you get endless tv dinners. You get soul-crushing, stifling mediocrity. And you get people who could have been excellent, who could have made a difference, leaving professions where their new, improved role is to be button-pushing faceless implementers of some stuffed suit’s canned spam.
It’s not just that the wallets of the middle-class are shrinking, but that their hands are increasingly tied. It’s one of the things people are trying to articulate when they call for smaller government. So many people are capable, caring and committed to making a difference for good. They want to live in a country where all that matters.

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